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SAM COOK COLUMN: Night sky, night ski: Learning to trust in the moonlight

This was just what I had come for. The coming-full moon, bright and ovoid, hung high in the night sky like an egg fresh from the carton. In the west, Venus was sliding toward the horizon on its nightly journey.

Clipped into backcountry skis, I was gliding through a semi-wild parcel of woods and frozen wetlands on a February night in Duluth. The beam of my headlamp pulled me along the simple trail that had been packed by hikers and dog walkers. The yellow pup trotted along ahead of me, ready to bolt into deeper snow when the right scent beckoned. I had clipped a red light to her collar so other night roamers could see her coming, but with the temperature at zero, I didn't expect to encounter crowds.

I had come partly for the moon, partly for my soul. The moonlight filtered through the twiggy tentacles of birch and aspen. It flooded snowy meadows with its milky light. Despite the cold, I was generating plenty of heat. My heart drove hot blood all the way to my fingertips and toes. Only my cheeks were chilly, and warm cheeks are not essential to winter travel.

Looking ahead at the fringe of my headlamp's beam, I saw the pup's ears square up. She can always see — or somehow sense — people on the trail long before I do. In a few more strides, I picked up two patches of reflective clothing in the darkness ahead. I flipped off my headlamp as we approached out of courtesy to the night walkers. We stopped to say hello.

It was Tim Bates, assistant director of UMD's Environmental Education program, with about a dozen well-bundled students behind him. They had come out for a session on the night sky.

"I picked the wrong night," Bates said. "The moon's so bright we couldn't see many constellations."

But the students were out there, by gosh, moving around under that glorious moon over silky snow, and at least a few constellations were bright enough to identify. Nobody was falling asleep in class.

When we parted, I came to my senses and left my headlamp off. My eyes adjusted to the moonglow. The moon was bright enough that I could easily discern the path.

Now everything had changed. Instead of following a beam of intense light, I slipped along from moonlight to shadow to moonlight. My field of vision had blossomed from a hallway of LED light to a soft-white panorama.

Cool things happen when you flick off your lamp on such an evening. The first is that you immediately rediscover your true place in the universe. Your world is no longer linear but spatial. Your field of view expands from a pool of light in front of your skis to distant pines to Orion to the Milky Way. This is your galaxy, a fine place to call home.

Without artificial light, something else happens. Your senses come alive. Your eyes adapt, taking in all the subtleties of the landscape. They sort out shapes and forms. No, that is not a warthog. It's the upturned roots of a blown-down popple. That's not pepper atop the snow up ahead. It's a scattering of mountain ash berries.

Your ears pitch in to unravel mysteries. That is not a child crying in the woods. It's a leaning tree playing itself like a violin against another tree. You become acutely attuned to the creak of skis and the snow-squeak of each pole plant. You sense every shift in wind on your cheeks.

The pup and I traveled this way for the rest of our outing, from moonshadow to alabaster clearing and back into the shadows. I learned to trust again — trusted my eyes to find the trail, trusted my skis to believe my eyes, trusted my tendons and neurons to make the tiny corrections that kept me upright.

This is how those who were native to this land and those who came after them negotiated this landscape long before fancy gizmos came around to guide our comings and goings. The old ways still work.

I stopped for a moment just to look around. And up. Gazing at the illumined heavens, I tried to trust that all the anger and hatred and discontent in our world was but a blip against the long arc of the eons. I wanted to believe that somehow this would pass and someone long after I'm gone would look up at these same stars with a sense of peace and contentment.

The pup came back to greet me. With a mittened hand, I reached down to rub away the frost that was clinging to her furry chin.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.

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